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Curricular/Co-Curricular Connections ... Finding the 'And' that Benefits Students' Future Careers

A Q&A with Pam McQuesten

Many institutions recognize the potential benefits of giving students a chance to explore their co-curricular interests along with their academic agendas. Some schools have tried to provide a means, such as ePortfolio technology, to track, demonstrate, and formalize these explorations. But few colleges and universities have major, formal initiatives that span the full range of their education programs and focus on advising for student futures and careers.

At Beloit College, institutional leaders point to a campus culture that has long encouraged students to create relevant learning opportunities beyond their coursework. Now the college has a new initiative called Channels, which will offer students even more support to find the connections between their curricular learning and co-curricular interests and passions — as they prepare for their future careers.

A growing set of theme-based, multidisciplinary "Channels" — led by faculty and staff, with the involvement of learning community mentors — form the basis for students to pursue these connections.

Here, CT talks with Beloit CIO and Library Director Pam McQuesten about the goals of Beloit's Channels program and how she as CIO and library director will need to bring technology, infrastructure, and library or campus resources to bear, to support the program and extend the reach of students.

closeup of hands working on laptop
"It's not about the curricular or the co-curricular — it's an 'and.'" — Pam McQuesten

Mary Grush: How did the Channels program come about, and when did it start?

Pam McQuesten: In some sense, Channels have always been part of Beloit — we just had never recognized the activities and opportunities as such. We already had resources and connections and student passions. The Channels program lets us link them together in ways that point to successful futures and meaningful careers.

This new initiative, Channels, came out of conversations held just this past summer. Groups of faculty and staff got together and started talking about what we needed to do to ensure student success beyond Beloit. Channels ultimately emerged from those conversations.

Grush: So in a way, is this the small, private, liberal arts college's response to the questions about "student success" we all hear so much about today?

McQuesten: Yes, but at Beloit, "student success" is not defined as finishing your coursework on time, and then out the door you go! Here, student success is about being career-ready when you graduate, what you will be doing when you finish here, and what you may be doing for the rest of your life.

Grush: How does Channels work and what are the benefits to students?

It's a way to re-think and re-execute what we believe is the value of a liberal arts education, by linking students' co-curricular interests and passions to academics, to people, and to resources all tied together through advising and mentoring — with a focus on their future lives.

McQuesten: I think it's a way to re-think and re-execute what we believe is the value of a liberal arts education, by linking students' co-curricular interests and passions to academics, to people, and to resources all tied together through advising and mentoring — with a focus on their future lives.

Academics and the co-curricular usually operate at most institutions as if they were isolated on separate ends of campus. That's unlike Channels here at Beloit, which is a highly integrated process. It's not about the curricular or the co-curricular it's an 'and.'

Grush: The new Channels program is really just beginning at Beloit. Have you seen much progress or participation so far?

McQuesten: Once the idea took hold, of identifying and formally setting up Channels, we had a lot of contributions, particularly from faculty — their enthusiasm was incredible. Staff from across the campus have added their energies and current students are providing great insights about how they see Channels being valuable for them.

In a matter of just this one, first semester, we had five Channels up and beginning to operate.

Grush: Beloit's Channels program gives students a fabulous opportunity to connect the curricular work they are doing with their co-curricular interests and passions. But will, or how will Beloit formalize and track this? We've seen other approaches at other colleges and universities — ePortfolios is one example of a tool that some institutions have used to allow students to demonstrate the connection between their curricular and co-curricular work. What is Beloit's strategy?

McQuesten: We are formalizing Channels, but not requiring students to participate. Teams of faculty, staff, and students oversee and lead Channel activities. There will be a professional advising and networking group for each Channel that includes alumni, community members, and others who can share their life experiences. Students have the option to participate in activities, but this is not a requirement. And we are not tracking their participation.

So, Beloit students will not come out at the end with a piece of paper that lists the Channel activities they participated in. Instead, they will possess sets of knowledge, skills, and connections to other people — all that can help them get started and succeed.

Some schools track participation in co-curricular activities as part of their data analytics focused on retention. Participation in a Channel at Beloit is about each individual student being able to prepare for their future life by combining their interests or passions and academics.

Beloit students will not come out at the end with a piece of paper that lists the Channel activities they participated in. Instead, they will possess sets of knowledge, skills, and connections to other people — all that can help them get started and succeed.

Grush: How will the Channels expand in the future? Is any of this student driven? And do faculty need special release time or incentives to participate and spend time on a Channel? How are resources obtained?

McQuesten: We have five Channels now: Arts and Creativity, Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Healing, Rights and Justice, and Sustainability. Groups of faculty, staff, and students are also meeting to develop additional Channels. If a number of students are expressing interest in a particular cluster or professional area, we'll have faculty and staff here that will want to engage with them and pull a Channel together.

We have a process by which people can create a Channel. They answer questions such as how this Channel will be relevant for student success beyond Beloit, what kinds of resources we can bring to bear on this, how many alumni might have an interest in the Channel, and what kinds of networks and opportunities are already in place or can be created.

We have students on each Channels team, to help define activities, do some programming, and help with communicating with other students around the campus.

One important thing Channels do, is to pull all sorts of resources together to make it a lot easier for a student to navigate all that the liberal arts offer in curricular and co-curricular opportunities. This is accomplished within an advising and mentoring environment that directs them toward successful futures and meaningful careers.

In terms of resources, often the resources already exist on campus, and it's more a matter of identifying them rather than creating them.

And faculty don't need special incentives to participate: They see this as an enhanced approach to what they have been doing and an opportunity to talk and work with each of their students in terms of being a whole person.

Grush: What are the advising and mentoring elements of Beloit's Channels? Can students connect to professional networks or communities of practice? Who in the Beloit community is available to be tapped — faculty, advisors, alumni, student leaders?

McQuesten: Advising and mentoring are in a sense the glue that connects students to Channels and Channels to students. Historically, the college has always had a strong focus on advising. Through participating in a Channel, students may find that they have a whole team of advisors and mentors including not only faculty but staff, alumni, and community members who can bring "real world" experience related to a particular Channel.

It's pulling all of these people into a professional advising network, if you will, that is focused on a student's future.

Advising and mentoring are in a sense the glue that connects students to Channels and Channels to students.

Grush: As CIO, what are the tools you might select to enable the connections among people, networks, and resources? How will you identify the potentially most useful tools, and how will you avoid mistakes in your selection process, given that Channels is a relatively new program?

McQuesten: There are two main considerations: First, advising and mentoring are the secret sauce for integrating the curricular and the co-curricular with student interests and passions, to help them realize their future selves. As we create teams of advisors and mentors, some of them are not directly connected to the institution. Sharing information among professional networks must be done with serious consideration of privacy issues. So far, this is less of a technology issue and more of a policy issue. It's an area where we have to be thoughtful, but we can draw from our other experiences with information sharing in a digital environment as we work with Channel teams on these issues.

The other problem area is more of a technology question: How can we have all these people — students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members — connected and communicating with each other effectively over time? Social relationship management software is a changing area in which many of the available products just aren't yet appropriate for higher education.

We aren't close to making any major technology commitments, and despite having a seasoned IT group on campus, we still are somewhat apprehensive about defining exactly what we think will work and then finding and implementing it. However, we know that technology will be a key factor in how well these Channels work for everyone, and it is our job to find the right solution.

Social relationship management software is a changing area in which many of the available products just aren't yet appropriate for higher education.

Grush: What about faculty development, and training advisors and community participants?

McQuesten: Beloit has received a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to support the Channels program. We are offering workshops for faculty and staff as well as events where alumni and community participants can work together with their Channel team members to shape the professional network.

On the library side, we are identifying ways to acquire and highlight resources that address students' co-curricular passions and all of the Channels. This is a different task than primarily thinking about providing material relevant to an academic subject area. And we may need to plan for better navigation tools for these types of resources.

Grush: How will the Channels program underscore the value of a liberal education?

The Channels program is an innovative way to learn through a liberal arts experience and will absolutely add to the value of a student's liberal arts education.

McQuesten: One of the things I've found most exciting about our Channels focus is that in higher education, we've always recognized that a liberal arts education is closely tied to long-term success. Today, employers will tell you that they really want liberal arts graduates, because they are professionally and intellectually agile, creative problem solvers, and effective communicators.

With Channels, however, we are saying that a liberal arts education doesn't just mean long-term success. Participating in a Channel group reflects your passions and grounds you in both curricular and co-curricular activities such that you are more successful from the beginning of your professional life — right from the point when you walk across that commencement stage and continuing on into your future.

The Channels program is an innovative way to learn through a liberal arts experience and will absolutely add to the value of a student's liberal arts education.

Grush: Beloit's Channels program will encourage students to follow both their academic, curricular pursuits and their co-curricular interests. This may come naturally enough to students. Will the challenge to the institution be finding, and defining, the "and"?

McQuesten: Beloit and Beloit students have always been adept at the "and" in this equation. In previous years, we've seen students follow their co-curricular passions with accompanying academic accomplishments and experience great success. Beloit provided them with the freedom to do that, but it was pretty much up to them, to find all the pieces and put them all together.

Channels provide students a launchpad for successful futures and meaningful careers, with the opportunity to be more fully supported by a wider range of advisors and mentors.

Now, the Channels program is helping students navigate the co-curricular in ways that are not just "one-offs" on a to-do list. Channels provide students a launchpad for successful futures and meaningful careers, with the opportunity to be more fully supported by a wider range of advisors and mentors who can truly bring a wealth of professional and academic experience. Channels offer our current and future students a much more powerful, focused, and effective "and" that promises them excellent preparation for their future meaningful and successful lives.

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